520 – As the Larva Turns: 02


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The Writing on the Wall

The heroes crept down the narrow stone stair keeping their backs firmly against the wall. No one had yet heard the bodies of the huge bat-things hit the bottom, though the distance had at last taken the glow of their burning bodies. A landing, a corridor, a side door with sounds of activity… it had been a thousand years since the lizardmen who built this place had laid claim to it. Why where they suddenly back now?

Joon, the party’s burly fighter, opened the door a fraction of an inch to peer inside. Enslaved frog-like men carried rubble from behind a troll, who was digging a wide tunnel in the wall of the large room, the heavy links of the chain around his neck clinking sullenly. Blackscale lizardmen sifted through the piles of rubble the frogs deposited about the room in small piles, making stacks of glittering gold objects or gemstones or other precious things the troll dug out of the earth, forgotten riches of a ruined empire.

But of everything there, Joon’s attention focussed on only one thing… it’s back to her, a mind flayer watched the entire enterprise, waiting for the troll to uncover… something…

Quietly, Joon closed the door, and the group of adventurers tiptoed away to the next room, where hopefully they might find something to fight without a mollusk on it’s face…

This was my group not too long ago. The Prince had sent them to collect what he told them was a mystical source of plague the lizardmen would use to kill all the humans, and only his wizards could neutralize it. He was lying, and they were really going after an ancient mind-flayer lich’s phylactery. I threw clues around like candy, gave them a library they could find the answers in, and a mind flayer who would rather talk than fight who not only knew the score, but also knew that the lich would be bad for everybody’s business. And yet the players somehow managed to dodge the knowledge like it was flaming bags of poo flung at them by ninety-year-old grannies, and handed the phylactery right over to Prince who cackled maniacally into the sunset.

Just like I planned it.

In this instance I used the clues not to lead the players, but to torture them with afterwards. I knew that no matter how much info I threw at them, as long as I did it the right way, they would never use it. What they would do is remember it, and kick themselves later about being so blind. (This is actually a good thing, as it makes your game world seem more real, less arbitrary, and drives home the notion that players who pay attention will have an easier time of it.)

The Types of Clues

There are two different types of clues in a Dungeons and Dragons game, the Handle, and the Needle. (Most clues have aspects of both, but tend towards one more than the other.) The handle is a clue that someone walks up and gives you, but it’s attached to something else. In order to make any use of it, you need to understand what the whole thing is. An example would be finding out that there is a very old dragon rampaging in the area, and that you have a book downstairs that discusses the last time this dragon was defeated… by a group of farmers. You have given the players a clue, and a direction to go in. Read the book, find out about the gemstone hidden by the elves that puts the dragon to sleep for 100 years, now you have a quest to find first the elves, then the gem. At the end, you have a party of adventurers ready to take on and defeat a foe way past their level range… which will give them something to brag about for the rest of the campaign.

The needle is a clue hidden… somewhere. You’re in a city of ten thousand people, somewhere here is a girl who saw the face of the cultist leader. Find her. The problem with the needle is that it depends on the players asking the right questions, or making the right rolls, or remembering the right NPCs, all things that could very easily never happen. Sometimes they require more than one hoop to jump through, which multiplies the difficulty by itself. While this can make for an intensely frustrating game for everyone if you build a game of needles, it can make for high drama if used to your benefit. Provide the player with a needle and then a handle, and while he may note the needle, he will pursue the handle… as it should be. Needle, distraction, needle, distraction is a wonderful way to provide foreshadowing in your game.

So how to incorporate these types of clues into your game? Well, you probably already are. Quest givers toss handles and needles around all the time, and often without differentiation, but we’re not going to be content with that here. By separating the types of clues and using them individually for different purposes, we’re going to give you a smoother running game that will make your players (and therefore you) happier and more effective.


Many DMs will give their players access to books and libraries in order to provide them with clues about treasures, maps, monsters, what have you. This is good, but a handle-giver isn’t a library, it’s a librarian… a dedicated research guy who is an ally of the party, and will run off to his books without being asked, providing direction and information for the players to do with as they would. For instance, a hunter is attacked by harpies, but manages to escape. The party mounts up, but at the last minute the librarian comes running out to tell them that wax earplugs help against harpy song. Or that harpies frequently dig a treasure barrow beneath their aerie, or any other information you, the DM, specifically want the party to know before they leave. Another possibility is to give one of the party members (or an allied NPC if it makes you more comfortable) uncontrollable psychic flashes. Young women being abducted out of town in the middle of the night? Time for a vision of a vampire carrying an unconscious girl over his shoulder heading into a familiar cave in the south woods. Now the players not only have someplace to go, (where they will discover the surprise vampire warren,) they also know to bring along plenty of garlic and wooden stakes.

The point here is not to lead players by the nose, they can do whatever they want with the info, and you can use your knowledge of your players to tune the right amount of information to give them something fun to do while not causing frustration. But the idea is to give you the ability to organically introduce any data you want, in such a way that will not require a gigantic investment of energy on everyone’s part.


We are all used to these. Most times needles are used as quests, which can lead to players stumbling around for an entire night before finally discovering the adventure right as it’s time to break up and go home. But as mentioned before, if you use the needle as throwaway flavor instead of the focus of an adventure, they can become fantastic ambiance for your game, giving your players a sense of reality and place within the world that will make them think about what you’ve created and what they’re doing there.

As an example, lets look at the situation described above with, and without all the needles. Without them, the players are on a fairly straightforward quest to find an evil magic box and deliver it to someone with responsibility and power to destroy it. At the end, out of nowhere, he turns on them and reveals that the players have blindly walked into his trap, giving him power over the ancient illithid lich. Players are pissed about being tricked, but they are even more pissed at having been tricked without having had any clues of what was going on. They feel betrayed not so by the prince, as by the DM.

On the other hand, with a well-sprinkled path of needly bread-crumbs (quickly distracted away) leading straight to the feet of the prince, when the reveal comes you will hear cursing and gnashing of teeth directed not at you, but at your evil antagonist, the dirty, stinking prince. (Along with cries of “I knew it! Don’t you remember the so-and-so, I told you we should have done such-and-such!)

Unintended Consequences

Finally, there is always the chance that someone in your group will think of something you didn’t plan for or make a connection you didn’t think was there, and the whole house of cards will come crashing down around you as the players hire the marauding band of gnolls to take out the prince’s caravan and then flush the lich’s phylactery down the toilet. Let me suggest to you two things. One, always have a plan B. If the players figure out the evil scheme, reward them generously for it and move on. They will be SO happy at the results of their own cleverness. Two, if this happens, pat yourself on the back, because you have just discovered the greatest success possible for a DM. You players are paying attention, thinking about your game, and really interacting with your world.

There is no greater compliment they could give you.

37 Responses to 520 – As the Larva Turns: 02

  1. Oh, and don’t forget to make sure you give one player a heavy-handed roleplaying reason to ignore all of the clues (needles and handles alike) and go along with the Prince’s plan regardless of how obvious it is to everyone that it will turn out badly.


    • Damn, I was gonna say that…

      and maybe I will next time. This was just about clues and not quests, but quest motivation might be an appropriate topic for another article. I could tackle the same situation from the player’s vantage point. That could be really interesting!

      • Yeah. From the players’ point of view: we ALL knew the Prince was lying. We DID use the library to research what the Prince had sent us after (albeit, after we had actually acquired it) but didn’t hit the DC on the skill checks. And out-of-character, I was arguing FOR opening the box to see what was in it (I believe I even threw out the possibility of it being a phylactery while postulating what could be inside) until you reminded me that I had in-character reasons to do as I was told.

        So it’s not like we were wandering around actively avoiding clues. Just the mind-flayer clue. And who could blame us? 😉

        • You did hit the DC checks in the library, but you were looking for something completely unrelated. Everyone kept asking about “the Breath of Bezmirath,” which was the name of a plant that the Prince told you was the name of the plague box. So when you looked it up, you found information on a plant. If the party had looked for the ancient lizardman city they would have found information on the disaster that stuck it in the form of the illithid lich, and the rumor that the remaining wizards of the city effected his downfall and were guarding his phylactery. (All info you could have looked up since, so no harm in telling you now.)

          You absolutely did have a very compelling reason to hand over the box anyway… though it’s an open question as to how long it would have taken the Prince to suss out a dupe.

          As far as the mind flayer went, I completely understood the party’s reaction and would not blame any of you for wanting to avoid it. That said, I still thought it was extremely funny.

          • Okay, you got me. I guess next time I’ll be sure to specify that we are Googleing:

            breath of bezmirath

            instead of

            “Breath of Bezmirath”

            which, as anyone with a decent Google-fu score will recognize, return vastly different results. 😉

          • Sorry…

            The Prince was lying about the name of the lich. He told you “Breath of Bezmirath” to throw you off in case you looked it up. It was the only ancient thing he knew from that part of the world and had an appropriately ominous sound. The lich’s name is something else entirely and not even close to “Breath of Bezmirath,” so no variation on that name would get you what you were looking for.

            However, you did know where you were going to find the box, what the place was called, and who used to live there. You also knew everything the Prince knew about the box’s description. No one looked for any info about the place, or the symbol on the box which the Prince had drawn for you. It’s not anything to get in a twist about, it just happens. Do you think things would have gone any differently if you had known what the box really was?

          • (sigh)

            I’m just picking in fun Kev. I won’t try to be cheeky in a text-only medium anymore. Ok? 😉

            (but for the record, I thought we had determined that the lich’s name was actually Bezmirath – apparently I was mistaken)

    • Role Playing Games are a lot like Tech support. If your computer won’t scan a picture, the scanner manufacturer will say it’s a problem with Windows and Microsoft will blame the scanner company. In RPGs, Players blame the DM and the DM blames the players. It’s just the way it works…….

      • Then your players and/or DM (GM dangit!) aren’t doing it right if they’re blaming failure of the game on people instead of talking about failure in the game.
        A good DM can only do so much but I’m personally disgusted by the dominance of the concept of D&D dungeoneering-oid linear script adventures; it sets up the DM to become the deific force of opposition instead of an artist rendering a world for discovery, fun and thematic coup-scoring, filled with personalities which are hostile, friendly, both, or neither.

      • Psh, use some necromancy and blame Gygax and Arneson! Stupid visionaries, had to come up with an addictive way of wasting time I lost countless hours to.

  2. I pulled off a similar thing in one of my old campaigns. The pc’s managed to free a lich (who appeared to be an old man) from a magical prison. He rewarded the pc’s with some nice magic items and treasure. In fact, the old man was so impressed with the strength and resourcefulness of the pc’s that he had them doing other (evil) deeds for him and all the while rewarding the pc’s handsomely. One of the pc’s finally got a clue and the figured out the lich wasn’t who he said he was.

    I still play with some of the friends who were in that game and they now tell the story of the “kindly lich” as a warning to others.

  3. Btw Kevin… next time we are back at the keep, Ravanna reads EVERY SINGLE BOOK in the library AND hires a librarian! 😀

    And who could possibly blame us for not wanting to encounter a mind flayer in light of that previous campaign that was very mind flayer-laden? 😛

    • Geez, doesn’t your GM have enough ways of jabbing barbed adventure-spears through your flesh? Hiring an NPC to go find lore in a significant library is basically asking for a fresh supply of adventure hooks.

    • Hey, you just got a new librarian in town who’s looking for a place to belong! His name is Gunter. 🙂

      No blame for wanting to avoid the mind flayer. Although I would likely have done exactly the same thing in your shoes, somehow as the DM I rarely think of the players just closing the door. 😳

  4. I like your needle and handle nomenclature, in the absence of direction (that I’d value) from other people on this matter I evolved a similar taxonomy of background threads, foreground threads and crashes for varying levels of obtuseness/directness and passivity/directivity in the clues.
    Critical acclaim for the crashes in my process has sometimes arrived in the form of, “Thank you for giving me that int plus streetwise check, it’s a good thing my character knows more about recognizing narcs than I do. I’m gonna make a note of that bit about it being illegal to lie about being a cop.” I try very hard to minimize using crashes though because we don’t want our players to feel stupid, we want them to have fun and make sweet, cool, incendiary mayhem. I do wonder if I’m being negatively influenced by my nomenclature and should just accept crashes as a worthwhile part of my gaming device inventory….
    All players acting in my cyberpunk games seem to end up getting crashed at least once in a while though, which I’m uncertain about. Is it simply the nature of the double-dealing, false-colour, vindictive and brutal nature of the genre, is this a defecit in my GMing, or is it evidence I’m doing it right that I still surprise players even after dropping a pile of background threads and maybe the odd foreground thread or two in the meanwhile? One particular instance is worth relating here: My players walked into a sting which I’d been foreshadowing for over an hour with over two dozen hints and they were very surprised that it happened. I took a can-break and came back to them having an almost-complete list of the clues I’d given them that this place they were walking into was a setup. I used the memorable line, “Suddenly you notice, the hick in the corner has stopped drooling,” as my dramatic reveal which was hilarious on multiple levels since it shocked and possibly even scared the shit out of my players. I’ve been unable to get useful direction from players in diagnosis though since they’re too deeply involved; they tend to stop thinking analytically about it as soon as they settle on the opinion that it’s very cool already that the environment is rich enough that they could figure out which are the narcs, which cops are corrupt, what the corporate power politics are in the group of suits trying to pay them to steal/kill/kidnap/other. They pick up the habit of noting and attempting to use the info they get for fun and profit in the various seedy bars, clandestine meetings and other social situations where they aren’t shooting or being shot at (yet?) for whatever reason. My veteran players start to seek out the information before it sledgehammers them or shoots a volley of .454 casull into their faces… but due to time and scheduling constraints (I haven’t run a game for more than one player in years) I haven’t been able to keep a group together long enough that they were swindling my non-patsy NPCs.

    Bonus point regarding vision flashes (psychic, magical or otherwise): If your players don’t misinterpret or argue over the interpretation of these regularly you’re probably not doing it right. Caesar had no exact idea what the he had to fear about the Ides of March before he got stabbed a little bit–the mundane warnings and the prophetic warnings were two very separate threads.
    Quiverspike is an awesome source and we must give him his due for doing well with his creepy magic/goffik stuff. I would go so far as to say that Macbeth is pretty much required reading for anybody whose fantasy setting includes visions or prophecies (with the exeption of the scene of Hecate’s dumb monologue, Act 3 Scene 5, which is worth ignoring and possibly defacement of the original play).

    • I’m gonna make a note of that bit about it being illegal to lie about being a cop.

      Just FYI if you actually use this in your C-punk game. There is generally a loophole to this rule that states that the officer does NOT have to admit to being a cop if he believes doing so will jeopardize his/her safety or the safety of others. Watch an episode of C.O.P.S. when they’re doing drug and prostitution stings – the decoy is inevitably asked if he/she is a cop and they always either avoid the question (often by asking it in return) or flat out say they are not cops. Being able to argue that you were afraid for your safety if you admitted to being a narc allows them a great deal of leeway in avoiding this rule.

      Otherwise, going undercover would be pointless.

      • Fair, and true.
        In that particular case we were dealing with plainclothes officers leaning on a lone PC who stuck out a bit too much, but cops have all sorts of motivations, legal and not-so-legal, to disregard that rule about self-identification now don’t they?

        • Certainly. I just find that there are way too many people out there that are under the false impression that a cop not admitting to being a cop constitutes entrapment – even people who are otherwise intelligent and reasonable believe this myth for some reason.

          • Wiki, wiki, don’t fail me now:
            “Entrapment is the act of a law enforcement agent inducing a person to commit an offense which would be illegal and the person would otherwise have been unlikely to commit. In many jurisdictions, entrapment is a possible defense against criminal guilt.”

            …Past this I don’t generally believe police officers, acting on official police business, with justifiable reason to not identify themselves get more than a footnote in most resultant criminal prosecution. Longstanding undercover actions however are a giant grey area and source of much legal and political confusion and abuse… but let’s not fall into that pit.
            Hah… a strict reading of the entrapment definition above would apply to someone nagged into murdering their police spouse: “You never buy enough milk you stupid bitch! Wait, what are you doing? Put the gun down! I sai…” and bang.

      • Oh, and I also forgot to mention, in the tweak of cyberpunk this particular adventure was set in, the corporates had substantially disempowered the police and re-empowered all the limitations on them in order that they could protect themselves and sell corporate security services at a higher price, leading to a system where the real cops are poor white-knight types constantly under assault from organized criminals beyond their resources and undermined by shadowy, sinister corporate security agencies acting under a secret set of rules almost nobody knows the limits of. Because we always need a new way of reinforcing the point of corporations (in this setting at least) being a horrible plague on society.

          • I’ve been accused of doing cyberpunk frighteningly well. My system is to make it like making gumbo:
            There’s a list of standard ingredients; corporate greed, governmental corruption and retreat from responsibility, urban decay, garish consumerism, noir-genre criminal savagery, pollution and ecological catastrophe, the march of technological progress, widespread general alienation, and (at least usually) some form of social unrest/rebellion.
            Vary the proportions of those as necessary and go searching for at least one theme ingredient to toss into the stew, but never add so much it’s no longer cyberpunk. I’ve used Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmares, more straightforward Orwellian nightmares, Cthulhu-inspired nightmares, the philosophical question of the value of human life, the Ghandian ideal for democratic action, Asimovian psychohistory, the singularity, varying flavours and purposes of ETs, modern medical necromancy, the quest for the holy grail, etc.
            Players should always come face to face with some horrifyingly sudden fatality or reminders of their (character’s) mortality.
            Beyond that… my implementation techniques are too situational and I’d have to really think about it to give more concrete directions.

          • Makes me a little nostalgic for the days when Cyberpunk was my group’s primary game. We typically had three separate campaigns going.

          • We used to play a lot of Cyberpunk too. I remember one character (not me) who turned out at the end of the game to have been working for a different group than all the rest of the whole time, and had been responsible for several snipings of group members. I loved that. It just felt so true to the genre.

            Hmm. I wonder if we could get anyone behind a Cyberpunk game in our group, Ron?

          • I’ve entertained the idea of breaking out my old Cyberpunk books, but to be honest, what I would run would probably only superficially resemble the stuff AC is talking about. The Cyberpunk I’m used to playing more resembles action/sci-fi with an anime flavor, than true cyberpunk.

    • I wish I understood more of what AC was saying. It seems like it would be really interesting! 😆

      • I’m sorry, when I work on an abstract level I have a horrible tendency to start using bigger words than necessary. It’s often a flaw except when I’m trying to convince my non-technical clients that they can’t get out of paying me every last cent I expect. Let me see if I can nutshell the paragraphs for you.

        1st paragraph:
        I separate bits of information given to players out into three types, named “background threads, foreground threads and crashes,” which generally mean things like a detail clue somewhere, something someone tells them in conversation or noticing someone pulling out a gun respectively.
        2nd paragraph:
        Here I pull my hair and gnash teeth about how I think it’s often a flaw when it gets as far as players being taken by surprise with people pulling out weapons or noticing that the guy they were trying to buy drugs from was a narc. I state that players should generally have at least a chance to notice or predict a normalish “surprise” before it happens, and that this chance be a real chance, or else you end up beating your players over their heads with penalties for not both noticing and following up on minor details said in my (ocassionally) rambling descriptions and idiosyncratic NPC dialogues. I then reiterate that there definitely is still a place for surprise though.
        3rd paragraph:
        I ramble about experiences with GMing cyberpunk from the perspective of surprises. I bring up examples, which are somewhat entertaining. I explain that after a while my players start to figure out a bit about second-guessing things and bitch that I’m too busy to game and have lost contact with most of my old players and fellow-GMs over the years.

        4th and 5th paragraphs:
        I opine about how psychic visions and things like it ought to be mysterious, vague, and never give the full keys to the castle regarding the plot, citing William Shakespeare as an authority.

        …This help? —A horrible, horrible coward.

  5. I can’t believe I just watched two bugs having sex. 😯

    I don’t ever run games so I don’t know if I need to know about all the clues and stuff. You should write a blog for players instead of DMs. There are more players anyways. 8)

    • One problem with this is that since the GM/DM is building the world, running many of the important people and absolutely all of the extras it’s more important that the GM/DM know how to do things right than that the players do: A good GM can help novice players figure out what to do and identify and deal with problem player behaviours but uniformly good players often aren’t enough to salvage something put together by a misguided, novice GM/DM.
      Accordingly, the best players are mostly ones who appreciate the difficulties that the GM/DM has and are good collaborators–identifying where they shouldn’t break the set and get tangled in the backstage lighting for instance (with note and preparation heavy gamelords), and knowing how cooperate with the rest of the players well to avoid either hiding in a corner or trying to hog the spotlight.
      There’s also problems of varying interpretations of what being a good player is about, which I’ve historically analyzed from the, “Wargamer, Roleplayer, Loonie and Munchkin,” analytic, although other ones of equal (or greater?) usefulness exist.

        • Not quest or campaign motivation and the player/character dichotomy? Glad my feedback was at least somewhat helpful instead of just a TL:DR.
          I’m in a ranty-mood today, sorry if it got a little messy.

  6. Wow that’s a really good article. I used to GM an Over the Edge group, which was a system created by J. Tweet before he wrote 3rd Ed. An extremely flexible, brilliant game. The unique thing was that the players would throw out handles and needles suggestions all by themselves (heavy paranoia). “Wait a minute. Did he say our waiter had a ponytail and astrology tattoos? You don’t think he’s in Aries Gang do you? Is he spying on us? Trying to kill us?” Well players… he is NOW. It took some getting used to, but once I stopped feeling like an unprepared, lazy GM, and started letting the players write the story most of the time (of course you have your plot, just be willing to change it), they had INSANE fun. I know it feels bad to do it at first, but being able to roll with your players’ whims draws them in, and pretty soon they never know when you’re doing it, and when you’re not.